August 3, 2007

The Ideal and the Real

Over at Betwixt and Between, *Christopher has been continuing to make wise observations about our present crisis, and I am continuing to think more on this as well. (Danger, Will Robinson, danger!)

In looking over some of my past thoughts on the subject, I came across the following, written in 1988, and it seems to be well relevant to the present situation.

In the Oath of Conformity the ordinand promises to engage to conform to the "doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church" -- not some idealized holy, catholic, and apostolic church, but the real, tangible, institutional Episcopal Church. In much the same way the parties who join in marriage promise to remain faithful not to some ideal married state, but to each other, in the real, tangible, though sometimes flawed union of "for better, for worse." Obedience to discipline only when you agree with it is rather like a marriage of convenience.

As I say, I will continue to reflect on what I am seeing as more and more a clash between idealists (who, ironically, in their ideal efforts bypass the real discipline at a local level in favor of a yet-to-be-constituted authority at some "superior" level) and realists, in the divergent ways of pre/proscription and description.

Tobias Haller BSG


John D Bassett said...

But who is a realist? And who is an idealist? I think that both liberals and conservatives can both legitimately claim each of these labels in some sense of the word.

New Testament and early Christian studies have shown that the structure of early Christian communities was diverse and apparently quite fluid. The ministries of bishop, presbyter, and deacon and the accompanying structures of diocese and parish were not dictated by the Savior to his apostles. We can be open to some changes here.

Much of the way we structure our Church is based on what the Constantinian church did, and that in turn was influenced by the structures of the Roman empire. We have abandoned many elements of this scheme, and maybe it's time to let more of it go.

I am not sure what the future will or ought to look like, but it seems to me that it will involve people choosing to create a number of different relationships and identities which do not necessarily fit into our traditional categories. Many lay people already often see themselves as members of more than one faith community. Some local churches have connections to more than one denomination. This kind of ability to create multiple affiliations seems an inevitable part of modernity, and at some point the structures of our churches will have to deal with it.

I do think that there is value in somehow having to work with people whose values and beliefs are different from your own, and I do feel a little sad that some of our old structures seem to be dying. But I just wonder if these difficulties could just be a way in which God's Spirit is helping us to forge new structures which will be more appropriate for our age and our time.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for this further comment. I'm still working on a longer reflection on the matter of ideal vs. real, but I'd suggest that in this comment you are marking out territory I'd define as "realist" -- that is, for example, you acknowledge the real diversity that existed in the apostolic community rather than trying to force the evidence into the restraint of a "once and for all" threefold order of ministry. One of the things idealists do is to seek to make history simpler than it was, in an effort to make present ambiguities less ambiguous. In some ways the present fluid situation is much more like the apostolic church than it is the medieval (thought that too gets idealized by some historians!)

Closed said...


You are correct in you observations in terms of structure and the apostolic church. The same goes for liturgical praying at that time, which gives heartburn to those who would want a singular strand of unchanged prayer. Or who tout out lex orandi, lex credendi as a one-way formula of prayer to theology--a mistake Anglicans seem often to make.

I think the difference is, while recognizing the truth in the diversity of the apostolic church, is here is where I agree with Fr. Radner, we're not simply generic either, that these things, the C-L Quad, what I've been calling sufficiency, are what we have agreed to as minimal not only I would say in recognizing full-communion with ecumenical partners outside Anglicanism but recognizing one another across quite a lot of diversity within Anglicanism--and it has been these that has been enough to give us common moorings and allow for a tolerant comprehension for our varieties at the same time. For example, when TEC tried to become a church without bishops, the CofE threatened not to recognize us. It's not idealizing to offer some minimums even if the history of the Church as a whole has allowed for even greater variety. I recognize the reality (as did Hooker) that other churches can organize differently and that the apostolic churches were variously organized. Hence, I get dyspeptic when we dismiss Methodists, Lutherans, and whatnot while getting bitter when we get a taste of our own medicine when Rome tells us we're deficient. I'm honest about that history and its complexity. Though I would suggest that the charisms found within the offices we name as bishop, presbyter, and deacon were present in the various organizings pre-Theodosian establishment.

I would say those claiming "Anglican" nonetheless organize (as "locally adapted") with bishops but beyond that a lot of leeway is given. Locally adapted is quite flexible. And that means I'm not necessarily opposed to leeway that would hold "conservatives" within our fold, say "flying bishop" schemes or whatnot. It's when those schemes are a pretext for schism I'm troubled. Nonetheless some "liberals" in their want to beat others with Niceae (on episcopal boundaries) seem incapable of being able to live with parishes that choose not to call a female or gay priest. I think we have to live with this even as we disagree. What I see is folks wanting to force consciences rather than live with variety and difference. I don't like it in my partner's tradition that those who want ordained gay clergy are forced to cowtow to the conscience of those who do not. And I don't want to return the favor of such inability to agree to disagree.

Again, it's not idealizing, but being honest about the diversity of history while asking what minimally has marked us off as Anglican giving enough latitude to remain within catholic faith while allowing for much variety and fostering an ethos of toleration amongst our varieties even as we squabble over our differences. In returning to this, I have had to hold somewhat loose from my own Anglo-to-Affirming Catholic tendencies on matters like Eucharistic doctrine or the BVM because though I disagree with others on these matters, I recognize that their varieties are also legitimately Anglican as much as my own.

Many of the schemas I've read that want more structures tend to even out our variety, suggest our via media is some kind of moderate middle, rather than arising from the tensions of variety held together in what is sufficient. Compromise as Fr. Haller calls it rather than comprehension. And that makes me nervous.

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

I share your view that the "Oath of Conformity" is not to some ideal to but the concrete, flesh-and-blood reality of the Episcopal Church. It's also an oath that entails real discipline. As I've written on my own blog in a piece entitled "Anomic Anglicanism":

"The 'Oath of Conformity' represents a deeply countercultural commitment. For as fashionable as it is for many bishops, priests, and deacons to take a stand on any given issue because their conscience dictates it, we clergy have promised to be conformists. We have solemnly promised that the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church over-rides individual conscience by setting the boundaries for what is and what is not normative. As a consequence, we clergy have voluntarily given up our 'right' to ecclesial disobedience."

I'd love to see you reflect in greater detail about what you've touched on in this posting.

Anonymous said...

"Obedience to discipline only when you agree with it is rather like a marriage of convenience." Sounds very well and all. But I think it could be argured that its not only conservatives that are only following the parts they like and ignoring the parts they don't.

The discipline only seems to go one way, however. If conservatives step out of line presentments will follow quickly. If liberals step out of line, some other option is offered or the process drags for years.
How long has Bennison been in trouble for a variety of offenses, but nothing is done? Redding claimed another faith and she was told to take a year off --after conservatives raised a fuss, the liberals didn't seem to care, but if a conservative crosses a state line, they get issued presentment charges.
If the Church wants to be disciplined, it should be for all, not just the minority, and the national church should also be willing to be disciplined by the rest of the communion as well.
Seems like every time the rest of the communions says something TEC doesn't like, the response is, "You're not our boss. We're the Americans. We do what we want, so there!"
(Before you ask which diocese I'm from, I'm not. I'm from another mainline denomination and am watching to see what my future has in store.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Christine, I think this does cut both ways, and discipline has been exercised against violations on both sides. I would suggest that not only do you belong to another mainline denomination, but you are not terribly well informed concerning what actually goes on in this one. Most inhibitions and suspensions are handled quietly, publicized only to the degree required by canon, rather than splashed across the headlines. The church annual usually lists dozens of such acts, and I have no reason to believe they are only applied to conservatives. In both of the situations you describe, Bennison and Redding, I believe the canonical process is being pursued. That the result may not be to your liking is hardly relevant.